Two things became clear after polling the Deadshirt staff to compile our Top Ten TV Shows of 2014 list. The first is that there was an overwhelming quantity of quality television this year, to the point that literally no one could agree on a set Top Ten. While the shows we’ve gathered below represent the programs that were mentioned most often at the top of our writer’s lists, it must be acknowledged that this list falls painfully short of encompassing the breadth of television we’ve come to love this year. The second is that this was a landmark year for the medium of television. Every show on our list broke the mold in some way, whether through innovative storytelling, unprecedented diversity, or experimental distribution methods, making 2014 one of the most exciting years in television history.
– Haley Winters, Television Editor
1. BoJack Horseman, Netflix
This twelve-part Netflix series was released in full all the way back in August, so it speaks to the show’s emotional impact that BoJack Horseman topped more of our writers’ lists than any other program. Perhaps this is because the show is, above all, surprising: an adult-humor animated series starring a horse with with the voice of Will Arnett hardly seems like the vehicle of choice for a serious meditation on life, love, and loss. Yet beneath BoJack’s surface crudeness lurked just that, and the television landscape—not to mention Netflix’s street cred—is significantly the better for it.
Despite its freshman status, Bojack did three things exceptionally well to land it at the top of our list. First, it establishes and maintains a unique tone for a unique world: Bojack’s “Hollywoo” is Los Angeles through warped stained glass, and as much as it pokes fun at Tinseltown in particular, it also evokes a much larger-scale sense of ennui for our fame-and-riches-obsessed culture. Second, it gives all its characters the credit and gravitas of real people, whether they are humans or human-bodied golden retrievers. The character work done by the actors of BoJack is much closer in scope to True Detective than, say, Archer. Lastly, this show was fearlessly challenging at every turn. It never settled, always demanding more not only of its characters, but of its audience. We may have been deceived by its simple packaging, but Bojack Horseman was never easy to watch. Hilarious and heartbreaking, thoughtful and devastating, BoJack Horseman earned its spot as our #1 TV show of 2014.
– Haley Winters
2. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fox
Brooklyn Nine-Nine was one of a trio of off-beat cop shows launched by Fox last season (which we covered in a series called “Partner Up”). One of them (Almost Human) didn’t survive the year, while another (Sleepy Hollow) has become one of the most fun cult series around, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the undisputed champ, scooping up Golden Globes for its first season and making the move to the coveted Sunday night lineup. (Even now, The Simpsons is no slouch as a lead-in.) While it’s funny as hell, B99 is also notable for fulfilling a ton of the wishes of those pesky progressive critics (like us at Deadshirt) who care so passionately about representation. The cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, and most importantly, personality. No one is there to “fill a quota” or just to make the cast look more diverse. It actually is. Every lead character, from the deadpan Captain Holt to the self-absorbed assistant Gina, has a full inner life and is a real and hilarious person, and the unconditional love between the crew is just the thing to fill that Parks & Recreation–shaped hole in your heart.
– Dylan Roth
3. Gravity Falls, Disney XD
Gravity Falls is one of those unique children’s shows that creates fun and visually interesting individual episodes, while also building a unique world and mythos that just gets better (and stranger) the further into the show you go. Preteen twins Mabel (Kristen Schaal) and Dipper (Jason Ritter) Pines are spending their summer with their Great Uncle Stan, helping at his tourist-trap “Mystery Shack” and exploring all the weirdness that the small town of Gravity Falls has to offer. And for Gravity Falls, that weirdness comes by the ton. The twins (along with Grunkle Stan, the Mystery Shack’s handyman Soos, and red-headed spitfire Wendy) face time travelers, zombies, and murderous AI, all while trying to solve the mystery of “The Author”—a man who documented and catalogued Gravity Falls’ strangeness in several journals before disappearing. The current season, the show’s second, is airing on Disney XD right now, and it’s already built on the series-spanning mystery in big ways. There’s obviously a long-term plan in place by the show’s writers in regard to the mysterious Author, and the Pines’ connections to him, and every payoff we get about it is satisfying, while also maintaining a curiosity about where this show is headed. Season Two has somehow improved upon an amazing Season One, “Blendin’s Game” being an episode that exemplifies the quality of storytelling and the cohesiveness of the overall show. In “Blendin’s Game,” the twins (through time travel) uncover why Soos hates his birthday in an emotionally resonant storyline that fleshes out the otherwise one-dimensional handyman. The ending lands as both a heartwarming tribute to the friendship between Mabel, Dipper, and Soos, and in the goofy, self aware vein in keeping with the Gravity Falls aesthetic: mature storytelling, with incredible comedic timing.
– Christina Harrington
4. Over the Garden Wall, Cartoon Network
Over the Garden Wall is story about siblings, friendship, and finding your way home, set in a fairytale world of folksy Americana. Two half-brothers—perfectly morose teen-aged Wirt (Elijah Wood) and silly, earnest, and infinitely optimistic Greg (Collin Dean)—are lost in the woods. They meet a wry bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), and many other strange characters as they try to find their way back home in the dark world of ‘the Unknown,’ where nothing is as it seems, but everything seems quite sinister. In its short runtime, Over the Garden Wall builds a world that feels expansive. It balances the dramatic with the comical, spinning a compelling and haunting storyline while remaining solidly family-friendly.
The ten-part miniseries (created by Patrick McHale, the former creative director of Adventure Time) uses the current animation style of much of Cartoon Network’s sprawling properties, but applies it to a uniquely contemplative and self-contained story. With a star-studded voice cast and incredible musical performances, Over the Garden Wall is an exciting high-production-value venture in a serialized format as-yet uncommon in US animation.
– Jen Overstreet
5. Steven Universe, Cartoon Network
Notable for being the first animated series on Cartoon Network with a sole female creator, Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe isn’t just a milestone, it’s a genuinely sweet and beautiful fantasy series. Among the countless boy heroes in modern media, the eponymous Stephen Universe stands out: he’s a healer, not a fighter. A gentle, eternally optimistic kid with a big pink pet lion, Steven learns about his magical heritage from his guardians, the Crystal Gem warriors, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The Crystal Gems are a trio of fantastic, complex, badass women, and their devotion to Steven gives the show its heart. As magical as Steven Universe is, however, it never forgets its humanity, and rounds out the cast with fully-fleshed out human characters, like Steven’s loving but underachieving dad, Greg Universe, and Steven’s best friend Connie. Steven Universe’s setting of Beach City is well on its way to be one of the most well-developed cartoon towns since Springfield.
Steven Universe is also one of the most beautifully animated shows on television, featuring astoundingly creative magic monsters and gorgeous, crumbling temples, all awash in warm gemtones. Still in its first season, the show has reached several creative highs, including the “Mirror Gem” and “Ocean Gem” two-parter, which expanded the mythology of the Crystal Gems and their enemies, and the heartfelt “Lion 3: Straight to Video,” in which Steven and the audience finally get their first full glimpse of Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz. AND THE SONGS. The original songs in Steven Universe are adorable, touching, and insanely catchy. Just google “Let Me Drive My Van Into Your Heart” and “Giant Woman,” I’ll wait. An accomplished, fantastic series, Steven Universe is the gem of Cartoon Network’s programming.
– Kayleigh Hearn
6. True Detective, HBO
At its core, True Detective is a story about the unknowable, unfathomable nature of evil. Or maybe it’s about systems of authority and how they fail society’s most vulnerable members. Or, wait, maybe it’s just about two men who fucking hate each other’s guts. The nice thing about True Detective is you don’t need to choose any one interpretation. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto’s scripts offer up an unflinchingly nasty look into the darkness without and within the hearts of men, aided by Cary Fukunaga’s confident direction. The latter meets the former in a handful of this year’s best moments of television, including a now famous uninterupted, six minute tracking shot through Louisiana housing projects. Cain and Abel bad cop/worse cop duo Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughy, riding that sweet, sweet McConaissance high) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson, possibly in the role of his career) bicker and fight over seventeen oppressive years, but their scenes together are always pure dramatic fireworks, a long simmering pot that constantly threatens to boil over (and does). In just one season, True Detective handily established itself as a high water mark of nasty, neo-noir excellence.
– Max Robinson
7. Game of Thrones, HBO
SPOILERS AHEAD for the fourth season.
Typically, the last two or three episodes of every season of Game of Thrones sees some sort of upheaval to the status quo established along the previous eight, but in the fourth and most recent season, everything seems to be in flux all the time. The season started off by knocking off possibly the most hated character in all of television, Joffrey, in truly gruesome fashion. After a few episodes of whodunit, Tyrion is blamed for poisoning the king and sentenced to a trial by combat. At the trial we get the death of Oberyn, a character seemingly introduced to be loved by fans and then killed all in one season. Across the narrow sea, Daenerys presses pause on her campaign to reconquer Westeros, taking responsibility for destabilizing the city she invaded. It’s impossible to recall every single shocking moment in this format, but needless to say there were a number of intense moments that had people talking. This also includes an odd misstep: a scene in which Jamie rapes his sister, and former lover, Cersei. Not only was this very uncomfortable to watch, its inclusion is confusing as there are no real ramifications and it’s never mentioned again; a few episodes later Jamie is back to being portrayed as likeable, coming to his brother’s aid several times, as if the despicable act never occurred. Still, even with such a weird anomaly, Game of Thrones remains must-see TV, especially as it enters its fifth season and catches up with the book series.
– Julian Ames
7. How to Get Away With Murder, ABC
Guilty pleasures are in. Freshman series How To Get Away With Murder has been a roaring success, garnering a well-deserved Screen Actor’s Guild and Golden Globe nomination for Viola Davis. Davis’ unmatchable performance as lawyer Annalise Keating elevates the show beyond a mere soap opera and is a model for a new, more heightened era of television drama. With an arc that draws viewers in and raises questions even as it reveals, HTGAWM is a new staple of primetime network TV.
– Joe Stando
8. Fargo, FX
Minnesotan Martin Freeman is the best Martin Freeman. FX put out a few shows that followed the Walter White model of A Timid Man Gone Bad, but the clear winner of the group was Fargo. A sequel of sorts to the Coen brothers’ film of the same name, Fargo managed to stay true to the spirit of the classic film while still being distinctly Its Own Thing. Following events in a small Minnesota town after a violent drifter causes chaos, Fargo keeps you interested from episode one. The all-star cast is never not exceptional, from the aforementioned Freeman, to the breakout performance of Allison Tolman (already cast on the next season of Archer!) as Deputy Molly Solverson, to Colin Hanks as Office Gus Grimly, to Big Time Movie Star Billy Bob Thornton as the Chigur-like Malvo. Solid performances from Keith Carradine, Bob Odenkirk, and Key & Peele round out the cast. It was also one of the most cinematic shows of the year, with gorgeous sweeping cinematography and the best TV soundtrack since Twin Peaks. Funny, thrilling, gruesome, suspenseful, and overall satisfying, Fargo made its mark as one of the best shows of the year and hopefully the next great anthology.
– David Lebovitz
10. Mad Men, AMC
Mad Men is a dense, emotionally claustrophobic show that revels in layers of symbolism and duality. This first half of its final season sees protagonist Don Draper finally hit rock bottom, as his marriage dissolves and he pushes away everyone he cares for in his personal and professional life. But for the first time, Mad Men also gave us a glimpse of hope, as Don quit drinking, came back to work at SCDP, and managed to show us a glimmer of the business savvy that got him on top in the first place. Every performance on this show approaches flawlessness, and Jon Hamm’s staggeringly nuanced portrayal is, at this point, so incredible that I will never understand how the man hasn’t won an Emmy. Considering the first six seasons of this show have been a slow, unflinching descent into the private hell of a tortured man’s soul, Mad Men is starting to give me the feeling that things might end up okay for Don. Of course, that’s probably what showrunner Matthew Weiner wants us to think, right up to the inevitable twist of the knife in the show’s forthcoming final moments. Either way, the Mad Men’s nigh-unimpeachable run will ensure that the series goes down in history as one of the best televised dramas of all time.
– Sam Paxton
Check back every day this week for more of the Best of 2014!